WINNIPEG — Patrik Laine took a much more casual approach to his second game back in Winnipeg, combining his trademark sense of humour while downplaying the importance of facing his former teammates.
Pierre-Luc Dubois hardly recognizes the roster of the Columbus Blue Jackets team he left in that blockbuster trade from January of 2021.
In this latest battle of those involved in the blockbuster deal, all three players involved found the scoresheet and made a contribution, with Laine scoring twice and just missing out on a hat trick (hitting the post and having Blake Wheeler make a kick save with the Winnipeg Jets net empty in favour of an extra attacker) in what would become a 4-1 victory for the visitors.
Jack Roslovic also played an inspired game, chipping in an assist and blocking three shots while Dubois scored the lone goal for the Jets, who had a three-game winning streak snapped and fell to 14-7-1 on the season as they prepare to welcome the Anaheim Ducks to town on Sunday afternoon.
The temptation when these two franchises get together is to get out the measuring stick, not for how it was used earlier this week when the Jets earned a decisive victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, but to try and get a handle on where things stand when it comes to the trade that altered the future of these two franchises.
In this hot-take society, we are often far too quick to declare the winners and the losers, looking for any sort of edge that is to be gained by one side or the other.
The truth is that weighing in before the future of Dubois is determined leaves the picture incomplete.
The Blue Jackets certainly have an edge in one department, since Laine signed a four-year extension worth $34.8 million (and carrying an AAV of $8.75 million), something he conceded was a huge weight lifted off his shoulders earlier in the day.
“Yeah, it helps. At least I don’t have to answer those stupid questions for the next couple years, so that’s kind of off the table now. So I’m happy about that,” said Laine, who has been limited to nine games this season because of a pair of injuries. “Still got to do the same job, still got to prepare the same way whether you’re playing for a contract or have one in your pocket. Still got to work the same way. But I think it just gives you a bit more freedom. People always say don’t think about it. But it’s not as easy as it seems. It’s always in the back of your head. So that’s kind of gone now.”
Dubois made it clear during the off-season that he had a lot of thinking to do before he was ready to decide whether he was going to make a long-term commitment to the Jets.
But Dubois wasn’t going to be doing a lot of that thinking during the course of the season.
When it comes time to iron out his next contract once the current one-year pact expires, he will deal with most of the particulars.
He was going to focus on growing his game and he’s done just that through 22 outings.
For the record, Dubois has done nothing but raise his value for negotiations on his next contract.
He’s producing at nearly a point-per-game rate (11 goals, 21 points in 22 games) while sitting near the top of the league leaders in penalties drawn.
When it comes to his own game, Dubois is a hard marker.
He appreciates the strides he’s taking, while always searching for other areas to improve or augment.
“Yeah. I’ve said this a lot in the past. The player that I want to become, the player I know I can become, I think it takes time,” said Dubois. “It will keep taking time. I don’t think I’m there, either. When I sit next to (Cole) Perfetti, I feel old, but when I sit next to other guys, I’m still young. I feel like I’m getting to where I want to be, but there are still a lot of steps to learn, still a lot of things I can do better, especially as a centreman. It can be a complicated position if you want to perfect it. I really want to get to the level where I feel I am the player I know I can become. I’ll only get there with hard work and the help of everybody in this organization.
“Especially defensively, the play without the puck, it’s a lot of systems, it’s less creativity with the puck than more creativity. Without the puck, it’s more reads and anticipation. That’s the hard part of the game. You really see some of the guys, the best two-way players in the league, they’re at their eighth, ninth, 10th season. For some guys, it’s obviously a little bit earlier, but it’s hard. I know I can do a better job at that. I’m somebody that’s never fully happy with how my game is and that’s definitely an area I know I can clear up and develop.”
One of the things Dubois clearly wanted to figure out this season was where he fit with incoming head coach Rick Bowness.
The early returns on that front are obvious. Bowness trusts Dubois and believes he can be an impact player for a long time.
Fellow pivot Mark Scheifele loves what Dubois has done in helping the Jets have that one-two punch on the top two lines that is rounded out by Adam Lowry and David Gustafsson.
That’s part of the reason GM Kevin Cheveldayoff pulled the trigger on this deal and paid a premium to get it done.
“He’s a guy that is powerful, skates well, strong, good hands, good in tight, he does it all,” said Scheifele. “He’s a tough guy to play against when he has the puck on his stick and when he has it down low. When I played against him, he was still a young buck. He’s grown before our very eyes. He works at his game. He comes in and he has that edge to him that everyone loves, and opponents hate. He’s a guy that gets into the dirty areas, gets to the net, has great hands in tight.
“When he has the puck down low, he’s pretty impossible to take off the puck. That’s why he draws so many penalties, that’s why teams get a stick in there, holding, whatever it is. When he’s doing that, it makes our team pretty lethal.”
But will it be the long-term fit for the Jets, since both Scheifele and Dubois are eligible to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024?
That’s why there’s a pronounced sense of urgency when it comes to the results for the Jets this season.
As much as the Jets fan base is enjoying this organization battling for top spot in the Central Division, how things progress on the contract front with Dubois is a question that could ultimately determine how the trade is viewed in the future.
As for the present, the Jets came up with an effort that was not up to the standard they’ve established in the first quarter of the campaign.
“We had a lot of bad performances from a lot of players in that room. We did. The team game kind of went out the window at times, defensively. We gave them those goals on terrible coverage that we normally cover very well,” said Bowness, who was asked if his team had a letdown after an emotional victory over the Avalanche earlier this week
“It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t. Listen, we’re in a dogfight to make the playoffs. Every game is important. I don’t care who we play. Like I said this morning, we set the standard of how we’re going to play, regardless of who we play. And as I told them after the game, it’s on every individual to look at yourself first. Don’t look at anything else. Look at yourself first and foremost.”
Bowness was adamant this was just one of those rough nights that teams have over the course of an 82-game season.
He expects his group to respond and you can understand why he would feel that way, since the Jets won three consecutive games — all within the Central Division — after a listless performance against the Minnesota Wild nine days ago.
With Friday marking the start of a stretch 16 games in 30 days, the Jets don’t have much choice — not if they want to remain in this chase to remain one of the top teams in the division and the entire Western Conference.